“What’s your name for your coffee order?”
She waits, expecting something she’ll misspell anyway.
My government name? Nickname? The name on the birth certificate I can’t legally access?
My birth mom must have called me something. Nugget? Sprout? A more neutral name like Baby. Spawn. Or did we cram the mother-daughter conflict into nine months? Conceivably, I was Shitbag. Burden. You.
There is a line behind me.
“Whatever,” I fumble.
She nods. Not the first weird name of the day for her.
When she bellows, “Whatever” from the bar, I feel like I failed a test.
Who doesn’t know their name?
“You’re adopted? I never knew that!” a coworker squeals. Did she think she could tell by looking at me? Do I ask what a relinquished person looks like? Should I have said anything?
I know nothing about the coworker.
Except that she isn’t adopted.
The therapy questionnaire asks if I feel I have let my family down.
I wonder what my biological family would think of me. She’s writing a book. I heard she’s finally losing some weight.
These thoughts assume I was kept. That I’m a known part of the family tapestry.
Though if I show up now, they might be wary of a stranger claiming a birthright to the tapestry threads. I wonder what she wants from us. Doesn’t she have her own family?
Do I feel that I have let my family down?
“Look at how disgustingly cute this is.” My cousin texts me a photo of her niece, sister, and mom. All with the same big-gummed smile. The same long necks. The same pear bodies. Like a flip book where only certain physical features were allowed to change.
I don’t look like them at all. I’m more toothy, upright, apple-shaped. Not the same tree. Not even the same orchard.
I caught a feisty Cubone in Pokemon Go at lunch. Every Cubone wears their dead mother’s skull on their head. The bones are the only protection their mothers could offer. Nicknamed the Lonely Pokemon, they’re said to weep every night, their audible grief making them vulnerable to predators.
Sometimes I can feel it, the invisible skull of my mother. It used to bobble on me as a child, but now it suffocates. I wonder if, when Cubones grow up, they shatter the old skull. If they eclipse their grief.
As the phone rings, I break out in a sweat. It says Mom.
What if the fates have toyed with me and my biological mom is calling? What would I say? Do I tell her I love her? That I missed her? That I don’t even know how I feel? That I hope I haven’t been a healable wound for 40 years?
“Shelley? Hello? How do I open a pdf?”
It is the mom I know.
The dentist’s office gives me paperwork; they want my family dental history.
“Adopted,” I carve into the top of the page.
I scratch out every single question and answer space with a force that bends the ballpoint pen. My rage scars the clipboard.
“Some of your teeth have a bit of mobility,” the dentist says in her practiced vocabulary. “Everything else looks pretty good, but I want to keep an eye on it. It might be genetics?”
Do I come from a lineage of toothless bastards? Which is worse: knowing you’re destined for dentures by 50 or never being told your toothy days are numbered?
“We’ll monitor this at your next visit, we don’t want them to lose their connections.”
Her hand is still in my mouth. I carefully say, “I’m uh-fwaid the connect-un ith al-wedy gone.”
“What,” she grins, taking her hand away.
“I said, ‘cool.’”
“I want you to write about adoption as a way to feel your own body,” my writing teacher says over zoom to the class.
I turn my video off and lay down. I thought taking a writing class for adoptees would streamline, clarify, exalt. Instead, it feels like I keep setting my hand on a red-hot stove.
At least I answered the prompt.
The author speaking tonight wrote a novel about a lady who adopts a child days before disappearing. The mystery is where this new mother went. But it isn’t her I’m worried about.
How did this child land in the custody of an unhinged woman? Who is tucking the child in every night? Are they being introduced to the basics of art, dishwasher organization, internet protocol? What psychological fissures are opening after losing two sets of parents? Since when did a human child become an acceptable mid-life crisis impulse purchase?
My friend has to hiss in my ear to get me to stop hot-whispering at her. “Jesus, Shelley, the book is about the mom.”
I text a classmate:
Guess what I’m writing about. Not the book. Not poetry. It rhymes with ‘badoption.’ Funny, that spells out ‘bad option.’
Waiting for a reply, I cry. I am alone. In so many ways I am not alone, in so many ways I am. I can find other adoptees, we can share the same thoughts, but the days still erode me.
Community and closure crumble at my touch.
I brush my teeth.
I beg them to stay.
Because they are my bridge to history, a family. Well, family is assuming a lot. They are my genetic souvenirs.
I used to dream about losing my teeth. About them unspooling into the void, roots untethering, the silt in my mouth. Trying to save them only caused further irreversible damage.
I don’t want to find out what else I could lose.
I can get dentures, I coach myself. It won't be the same, but I’ll learn to live without.
Shelley Gaske is an author and adoptee based in Oregon. Awarded a residency at Dar Meso in Tunis, Tunisia, she is a 2022 Writing by Writers Fellow. Her writing appears in 68 to 05 and elsewhere. She leads writing workshops for adoptees and is editing her first book, a memoir on treatment-resistant depression.